Denver’s Big Boy

The roughly 100 hundred miles that separates Denver, Co, and Cheyenne, Wy is the currently epicenter of Union Pacific’s monster steam locomotive the Big Boys, not because they routinely ran between these two cities but because three of the eight existing Big Boys can be found along Highway 25 in the cities of Denver and Cheyenne.

Cheyenne was the operational headquarters for the 4-8-8-4, freight locomotives that were designed to tackle the Wasatch Mountains between Cheyenne and Ogden, Ut. These were the largest steam locomotives ever built.

Overall, 25 Big Boys were made, currently two are found in Cheyenne and one in Denver. No. 4004 can be seen on display in Holiday Park in Cheyenne. Local residents petitioned Union Pacific to donate a Big Boy to the city of Cheyenne when they saw the rapid disappearance of stream locomotives from the rails in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Big Boy 4004 at Holiday Park in Cheyenne.

Big Boy No. 4005 had a much more colorful history than 4004. 4005 was only one of two Big Boys that were converted from coal to oil (more on that other converted Big Boy later). 4005 tallied up 1,043,624 road miles in a 20 year career. The giant is also the only Big Boy to ever be involved in a major accident. On April 27, 1953, 4005 hit an opened siding at 50 miles per hour causing the train to derail and the Big Boy fell on it’s left side (the damage is still visible today). The engineer, fireman, head-end brakemen were all killed in the wreck. The locomotive was later repaired in Cheyenne and returned to service.

The 4005 is now on display in Denver’s Forney Museum of Transportation in northern Denver. This is where I returned, this time with Steve, to do a few field sketches of the Big Boy (the featured sketch and the sketch below of 4005’s tender.)

The other Big Boy that was converted to burning oil is perhaps the most famous Big Boy: Union Pacific’s 4014. 4014 is the largest operational steam locomotive in the world. It was on display for many years in California and was shipped, by rail, to the steam shop in Cheyenne and fully restored to working order.

Union Pacific 4014 has proven to be the most illusive Big Boy for me. You would think the largest operational steam locomotive in the world would be easier to see! I have seen the Steam Shop in Cheyenne and the doors have always been closed, hiding 4014 and the Living Legend No. 844. A west coast steam tour was planned for this summer but was cancelled because UP’s rails are crowded with freight traffic to ease the supply chain issues. Yet another opportunity missed to see 4014 under steam.

This is the closest I have come to seeing 4014: it’s tender. This was at the steam shop and little did I know that they were preparing to go out on the rails for an unannounced test run as a warm up for it’s 2021 summer steam tour. So close yet so far away!

Union Pacific’s Steam Shop, Cheyenne, Wy

One of the holy sites to steam locomotives in the United States is the Union Pacific Steam Shop in Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is a building where Union Pacific’s legacy steam locomotives are stored and maintained (and in one case fully restored).

It’s most notable locomotive is the FEF-3 4-8-4 Northern locomotive #844 know to many fans across the world as the “Living Legend”. 844 is notable because it had never been retired since she was built in December of 1944. UP had keep 844 running as an ambassador for the company. As the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad neared, (where the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met at Promontory Summit in Utah) Union Pacific had plans, big plans!

They chose the ambitious task of restoring to full operation one of the largest examples of a steam locomotive ever built, the 4-8-8-4 Wasatch type, known to rail fans as the Big Boy. 25 of these massive locomotives were built for the Union Pacific to tackle the the grades between Cheyenne, Wy and Ogden, Ut. There are eight Big Boys still in existence, all on static display, until now.

The steam crew looked at all of the existing Big Boys and decided that #4014, which was on display in the RailGiants Museum in Pomona, California, was the best candidate for restoration. 4014 had been retired in December of 1961 after logging 1,031,205 miles while in service.

The Big Boy was moved, by rail, from California to the Steam Shop in Cheyenne. From 2016 to 2019, 4014 was restored at the Steam Shop and had her first “maiden” run after six decades on May 4, 2019.

So here I stood on the walkway of Highway 180, which spans the tracks and yard in Cheyenne, looking down at the Steam Shop, hoping to get a glimpse of the recently restored monster. Three and a half bay doors were open. In one stood the Living Legend herself, 844!

What’s behind Door Number 3?

I later returned to find that the last bay door was fully opened, revealing the tender of Big Boy 4014! Well her backside will have to do.

Outside of the bay door where 4014 was stabled, there was an extra tender coupled to a UP EMD #4015. It looked like some crew members where making some adjustment to the tender. I didn’t know it at the time but this was a sign that 4014 was soon to be on the move. Two days later, 4014 and it diesel/electric helper an SD70M #4015 indeed were on the move as the crew took the Big Boy out on an unannounced test run from Cheyenne to Denver on July 8 and 9th. This was a test run for the month-long, multi-state tour that 4014 would begin on August 5.

It was hard to believe that I was so close to seeing 4014 in action but had no idea until after the fact, that the Big Boy was strutting out on the mainline. “Ugg!” As Charlie Brown would say.

The tender of 4014. The man in the foreground is 4014’s engineer and director of the Steam Program, Ed Dickens. This feels like a bit of a paparazzi shot. Oh, not for Ed but 4014!
Cheyenne is a trainspotter’s paradise with 80 trains passing through every day like this eastbound freight.